Shaw Draws Inspiration From Memories of Bernstein

“When Lenny would greet you, he’d throw his arms around you and kiss you on the mouth. Some of us didn’t want it--but that’s the way he was. Even his excess was real. It wasn’t something he added as an afterthought.”

Relaxed in his hotel suite after rehearsing the San Diego Symphony all morning, Robert Shaw mused on the life of Leonard Bernstein, whose music Shaw is conducting this weekend at Copley Symphony Hall. Although the 75-year-old Shaw, who is the San Diego Symphony’s principal guest conductor, was Bernstein’s senior by several years, the two American conductors’ paths crossed regularly.

“I did some of Lenny’s first recordings of (his 1944 musical) ‘On the Town.’ I was working for (choral director) Fred Waring at that time, and Bernstein complained that we took his tunes and ‘Fred Waringed’ them. I also did the narration when he conducted Marc Blitzstein’s ‘Airborne Symphony.’ We were at Tanglewood together for three years, although we didn’t see a lot of each other. I recall Lenny’s conducting of Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms.’ He really opened up the inner workings of that score for me.”


Shaw was unstinting in his praise for Bernstein as this country’s most persuasive advocate for serious music, not only in his entertaining televised children’s concerts, but in his flamboyant podium personality.

“Wherever he stood, he was center stage. Certainly no other American has ever done so much to bring serious music and serious music-making into the common market.”

Bernstein’s style and ego, however, frequently irritated the musical establishment. According to Shaw, the emigre German composer Paul Hindemith, who taught at Yale during the 1940s and was one of Bernstein’s conducting mentors at Tanglewood, was incensed by Bernstein’s exhibitionism on the podium.

“People like Hindemith--he didn’t like conductors anyway--decried his sort of conducting as terribly immoral. Bernstein took every composer to sustain his own ‘dance’ in what seemed to be almost a sexual orgy. On the other hand, as time went on, his Mahler performances were rich intellectual experiences.”

Although Bernstein’s accomplishments as conductor and educator allowed him few rivals, Shaw is not ready to classify Bernstein as America’s most important 20th-Century composer.

“I don’t think there is any way you can leap over Copland, you know. And I think that both William Schuman and Samuel Barber are very important in our time. And they will continue to grow in importance,” Shaw said.

On his San Diego Symphony concerts tonight and Sunday afternoon, Shaw will conduct Bernstein’s Second Symphony and the “Chichester Psalms,” a choral and orchestra work commissioned in 1965 by the dean of England’s Chichester cathedral. Two years ago, Shaw had assembled this concert, which he conducted last month in Dallas, because be wanted to celebrate Bernstein’s turning 70. The composer’s death in October turned the concert into a kind of commemoration, although Shaw denied any prescience.

Shaw noted that the “Chichester Psalms” combined Bernstein’s sense of the sacred with his love of the theater.

“Bernstein was a real melodist. The final movement of ‘Chichester Psalms,’ for example is almost as singable as ‘Maria’ and ‘Somewhere’ from ‘West Side Story.’ The first movement of ‘Chichester Psalms’ is so jazzy that we used to call it ‘West Side Psalms.’ Bernstein believed that even theater can be religious, which is why I like to compare Verdi and Bernstein. Both were significant humanists who wrote the majority of their works for the popular--even commercial--theater of their day.”

Shaw, who grew up in parsonages here in Southern California, lauded Bernstein’s spirituality, an aspect of the composer seldom discussed by either biographers or critics.

“Bernstein had a wonderful sense of the mystery of life, although his broad vision isn’t the sort that can be easily channeled into a Fundamentalist’s ‘born again’ experience. Bernstein was content that the unknown may also be unknowable. But that doesn’t mean that it ain’t there!”

Cleveland is coming. The noted Cleveland Orchestra under its music director Christoph von Dohnanyi will visit San Diego on Oct. 25 as part of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s 1991-92 concert series at Civic Theatre. On the same series, pianist Andre Watts will perform a solo recital Dec. 7. According to society executive director Neale Perl, the society’s two extant downtown series, the Celebrity Series and the International Orchestra Series, have been merged into a single series at Civic Theatre.

“When we learned that only one great orchestra--Cleveland--was coming to the West Coast for the coming season, we decided we couldn’t offer an orchestra series with but a single orchestra. It just is not a good year for visiting orchestras, so we are presenting the Celebrity series at Civic Theatre with the Cleveland Orchestra.”

Perl will announce the series’ complete programming next week.

The envelope, please. Kristine Wei of Chula Vista won the San Diego Symphony’s Young Artists Concerto Competition last weekend at Copley Symphony Hall. The 16-year-old pianist, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Mingteh Wei, attends Hilltop High School and studies piano with Ilana Mysior. Besides her $500 cash prize, Wei will play Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto with the San Diego Symphony April 24, 25 and 28.

Second prize went to Nathaniel Moore, a 17-year-old pianist from Poway High School, and third prize was awarded to violinist Matthew Fei, a 13-year-old student from Poway’s Twin Peaks Middle School.

Unusual this week. Today at 8 p.m. in UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium, the contemporary music ensemble SONOR will perform Brian Ferneyhough’s “Prometheus” for wind instruments and works by Ives, Schoenberg and Erickson. . . . Monday’s free noon concert at the Lyceum Theatre downtown will feature San Diego Symphony contrabassist Michael Wais, accompanied by pianist Hollace Koman.